Latin American nations end crisis with handshake

SANTO DOMINGO Fri Mar 7, 2008 6:11pm EST

1 of 29. Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez speaks to supporters during an event in Caracas March 5, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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SANTO DOMINGO (Reuters) - The presidents of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela ended a border dispute on Friday with a summit handshake after a week of regional diplomacy in the face of troop buildups.

"And with this ... this incident that has caused so much damage (is) resolved," leftist Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said before standing up and shaking hands with his U.S.-backed conservative Colombian counterpart Alvaro Uribe.

The dispute erupted on Saturday when Colombia raided inside Ecuador to kill a commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and its resolution brought the summit to a surprise ending after acrimonious moments, including Correa calling Uribe a liar.

The accord came after Uribe apologized to Correa at the summit under pressure from governments across the region. Uribe also said he could guarantee Colombia would not make similar raids if they cooperated in the fight against the FARC.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had blamed the United States for the crisis as he sent tanks to the border with Colombia, joined in by shaking Uribe's hand vigorously, applauding loudly and smiling broadly.

"We are all happy -- we must unite and integrate," Chavez said.

The handshakes were broadcast live on television across Latin America in response to a special request from the summit host, Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez.

The resolution was a diplomatic victory for Latin America, whose governments from Mexico to Brazil managed the crisis by emphasizing negotiations and took advantage of the previously scheduled summit to force the sides to talk.

Fernandez engineered the end with a public appeal.

"What all of us would like is for this meeting to end with a hug, a handshake, between the presidents of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, together with their Latin American counterparts," he said to thunderous applause.

The end also will resurrect hopes for the release of FARC hostages, including a French-Colombian woman and three Americans. Chavez had negotiated the freeing of six captives in the weeks before the crisis.

LEADERS OVERCOME CLASH

Earlier Uribe and Correa had clashed at the meeting with Correa calling the Colombian a liar after he accused him of links to the FARC, Latin America's oldest insurgency.

The crisis had spread across the region with leftist allies Venezuela and Nicaragua joining Ecuador in cutting relations with Colombia, while Venezuela and Ecuador sent troops to their borders against the strongest U.S. ally in the region.

With the dispute resolved, Nicaragua restored ties with Colombia.

"Nicaragua reverses the rupture of relations with Colombia," Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said.

"I'll send you the bill for the ambassador's air fare," Uribe quipped as he anticipated sending his envoy back to Managua.

Major powers including the United States, France and Russia had also called on the leaders to reach a negotiated settlement.

Friday's outcome confirmed predictions from the Pentagon to Wall Street that the dispute would not escalate into the first military conflict in the region since Peru and Ecuador fought briefly over their border more than a decade ago.

(Additional reporting by Manuel Jimenez and Enrique Andres Pretel in Santo Domingo and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Writing by Saul Hudson; Editing by John O'Callaghan and Bill Trott)

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